DURHAM, N.H. – They have to bus 35 minutes to practice, across the state line to an ice rink that is not fully enclosed.

For the York High girls’ hockey players, these are minor inconveniences.

“Sometimes, the fog rolls in and you can’t see the other side, but it’s hockey,” said junior Nicci Heroux.

While some schools are desperately searching the hallways for players — and other schools have either dropped the sport or not organized a program — the York High Wildcats are one of the success stories.

Monday was the first day girls’ hockey teams could practice with their coaches. And at the Jackson Landing rink in Durham, N.H., York Coach Kevin Banfield welcomed 25 of the 29 players on his roster, a group that eventually will be split into varsity and junior varsity squads.

Banfield began a girls’ hockey program in York in 2003 when his daughter Alex was in eighth grade. There was enough interest for a club team the next year, and the program kept building. The club team became an official high school team in 2008 when the Maine Principals’ Association sanctioned girls’ hockey.

There are other successful programs. Biddeford, for example, has 27 players in the high school program, and more on the way from middle school.

But at Deering High, there were no announcements for girls’ hockey practice. The Rams had hoped to merge their team with Portland High’s. But in June, the MPA denied permission for such a move.

“Unfortunately, with only six returning players, Deering will not be competing in girls’ ice hockey,” Deering Athletic Director Bill LeRoy wrote in an e-mail.

Banfield said one key is to make sure everyone gets playing time: “The only way to get girls to buy into the program is if they are going to play. We never had (grade) A players. We’ve had a bunch of B players — it’s how we’re able to compete.”

Look at the All-West team chosen by the coaches last year and no York player made the first team, and only Heroux, a forward, made the second team. But York’s “bunch” won, with a 14-6 record and one victory in the postseason, before losing in the Western semifinals.

“The program has grown so much,” said senior co-captain Hannah Keating. “The skill and the talent improves every year.”

Most girls’ teams have two lines. Banfield said, “by the middle of December, our third and fourth lines can go out there on a regular basis.”

Makki Hill, the other senior co-captain, had never played hockey until her freshman year.

“My cousin was on the team and Hannah is one of my friends,” Hill said. “I just decided to (play).”

Heroux said the recruiting is word-of-mouth. “They hear how much fun we have riding on the bus, and going to games,” she said. “Kids want to play because they hear it from their friends. Once they start, they’re hooked.”

Indeed, the bus rides seem to build camaraderie. And players don’t mind the rink conditions for practice.

“You wear a lot of Under Armour,” Keating said.

The Wildcats play their home games in enclosed New Hampshire rinks in Rochester and Dover.

York might not win it all this year. St. Dominic in the East and Scarborough in the West may be the early favorites. But York is a contender.

“We have a real chance to compete for a title,” Banfield said. “We never had that opportunity in the past. It’s going to be a fun year.”

 

NOTES: Some standout players have transferred to prep schools this year. Biddeford’s, Sara Grover and Olivia Gagnon are now at Hebron Academy. Falmouth’s Megan Fortier transferred to North Yarmouth Academy.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]